Martha Kapos, Assistant Poetry Editor Lion and Chrysanthemum
In an episode in Remembrance of Things Past Proust places his narrator in a strange hotel room at Balbec-Plage. Marcel arrives exhausted after a long journey, but then, throwing himself onto the bed, finds that sleep is out of the question. But this is no ordinary insomnia: its special nature is to transform the conventional surroundings of the room into an inferno of the unknown and the unfamiliar. The room is unremarkable enough, but as if throwing off a cloak of normal visibility, the high ceiling, the row of glassfronted bookcases, the violet curtains come out into the open in an untamed state; and with the menacing hostility, autonomy and sheer otherness of wild animals, they become almost insanely seen. The experience is the occasion for a larger meditation on how the dispiriting and monotonous laws of habit protect us from the ‘enchantments of the real’. ‘The immobility of the things that surround us’, he observes, ‘is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them.’
I was reminded of this recently by a poem informed by a striking mobility of conception. Richard Wilbur’s ‘Lying’ shows us many ordinary things becoming other than themselves. An onionskin is a ‘shucked tunic’ which, lying on a chopping board, ‘rocks like a flapping sail’. A bit of tarpaulin torn loose in the yard by the wind is ‘some great thing tormented’, ‘a hip-shot beast which tries again, and once again, to rise’. Add to these (for the sake of argument) a butterfly ‘bobbing away like wreckage on the sea’ and ‘a lion’s chrysanthemum head’ (both from Marianne Moore) and we see the force of Wilbur’s observation, ‘Odd how a thing is most itself when likened’. Odd, I think, because words seem to confirm to the writer that ‘the world is’, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘everything that is the case’. A rose is a rose is a rose. Poets, on the other hand, find themselves in a curious position similar to that of the storytellers of Majorca who begin their tales, not with our ‘Once upon a time’, but with ‘It was and it was not’. The head which is neither lion nor chrysanthemum – but also both – has gone into an unnamed state beyond the words themselves and we as readers are now having to construct the new image, which the words of the poem demand as their explanation, from own physical experience. We find ourselves somehow caught in the act of seeing and naming – where the de-visualising process of the written is restored to the vivid pictorialising action of the mind’s eye.
In her Newcastle lecture published recently by Bloodaxe, Jane Hirshfield recalls an image from Donald Hall. ‘A poem is a house with a secret room at its centre, the place where all that cannot be paraphrased is stored. The room can never be opened to ordinary habitation, yet its presence changes the house.’ She goes on to say that this room is not to be found either in the words of the poem itself, nor in the external world, but in ourselves as readers.
I’d like to imagine that Proust’s hotel bedroom freed from the veto of habit and open to the enchantments of the real is such a secret room in the house of language. Seamus Heaney has said that a metaphor is a poem in itself in miniature. So let us suppose that these spaces between lion and chrysanthemum are also to be found within the pages of this magazine – which stores all that cannot be paraphrased, which brings words mobile and alive to the mind’s eye, and which changes the house.